Debate and Controversy in the Deaf Community

Posted on 3 June 2007. Filed under: Deaf Community, Reunifying Gally |

Sometimes it surprises some Deaf people to realize that, hey, we’re not the only community to experience heated debate, or hot controversies, or virulent disagreement.

Or maybe it’s only a surprise to people who are both relatively young and also far more insular than they realize? Or a surprise mainly to people who subconsciously stereotype any community other than their own — perhaps, again, because they are more insular than they realize? I don’t know. But I do know that it was a big surprise to me many years ago to be informed that some of the touchier debates common to the Deaf community also exist in other communities. Though that might have been just because I was far younger, more naive, and–yes–more insular back then.

There are some controversies that seem to be common, as far as I can see, to ALL minority communities. Please remember that I’m NOT seeking to start discussion on any of the following questions. I’m ONLY seeking to point out that these are common questions that MANY, and maybe all minority communities struggle with. Can you picture how a debate on any of the following questions might unfold in some minority community OTHER than the Deaf community? Or in any community BESIDES the multiple communities to which you probably belong?

For example: where do we draw the boundaries on our community? Who “belongs” and who doesn’t “belong?” Which of several possible labels that we COULD use to define ourselves (and that we perhaps HAVE used to define ourselves in various contexts over various time periods) is actually the most appropriate label to use? To what extent can or should we be unified in agreeing upon how to label or define ourselves, particularly when representing ourselves to people outside the community? Who can appropriately be considered “allies” — people who belong outside the boundaries of our community but who are very supportive of our goals? What exactly is the appropriate role of these allies within (or with) our community? Are there certain topics that can be considered “dirty laundry” within our community that must never be aired outside of the community? If a certain topic is popularly considered “dirty laundry,” are there times when it can do more harm than good to our community when we try to avoid all debate about it? Do we have hierachies within our community, where some members think they are “better” or more “pure” or more truly a part of the community than others? If so, to what extent are these hierachies actually a strength (are they?) and to what extent do they cause more harm than good? Why do we have these hierachies and how do we disassemble them?

Again, please remember that these questions are NOT meant to be answered here and now. All are interesting questions for debate ELSEWHERE. Here, I’m trying to take some large steps backwards to look at the whole phenomon of debate and controversy within minority communities generally, of which the Deaf community is simply one of many.

All the above questions, and a great many more, are important issues for any minority community to explore among themselves. And in most minority communities, these questions can stir up intense emotions and sharp disagreements about which “answers” are “correct” and which answers will only lead to the destruction of the community.

When these kinds of disagreements occur, but especially when they are prolonged, intense, and involve large numbers of people, then sometimes people start worrying about the very existence of disagreement. Some people may start saying, “This disagreement is tearing us apart. We can’t be a community like this!” Sometimes some members of the community become so upset at the very presence of debate that they start looking for someone to blame for starting the debate. They may point to someone who did nothing more than raise a question about an issue that has already been festering within the community for a very long time, even if it has usually been ignored up until now. And accuse them of trying to divide the community simply for raising sensitive questions that have no easy answers.

Some months ago, the American Deaf community (and, to a lesser extent, Deaf communities in Canada and the UK) was plunged into a deep controversy over the Gallaudet protests. Of course, Ground Zero was on Gallaudet campus itself. But that’s not the only time we’ve faced controvesy in the Deaf community–it’s merely one of the more dramatic events that caught an unusually high number of people in its grip. We’ve seen a number of smaller debates spread through the Deaf blogosphere from time to time. (I haven’t been reading DeafRead for long enough, or extensively enough, to point to good examples. I’ll let others do that in the comments area.)

At the moment, it appears that the on-line Autistic community is having a very intense debate of its own, particularly among Autistic adults and parents of autistic children within a community of bloggers called the Autism Hub. I first became aware of it when one of the most prominent autistic bloggers, Amanda Baggs (at Ballastexistenz) wrote a post in response to that general debate. Some of what she says is specific to the particular controversy that is now sweeping many Autism Hub participants. But Amanda has a real knack for taking what seems to be a very specific incident and drawing much broader lessons from it that we could all do well to consider.

So, she raises some points that could be just as relevant for the Deaf community to consider in dealing with our own internal debates as they are to the on-line Autistic community. To give you a few random quotes:

Working within an organization and critiquing its power structures, even harshly, are not mutually exclusive.

Communities that can’t handle dissenters aren’t real communities, but can certainly grow into them if they learn to handle dissent by doing something other than a Chicken Little routine.

Conflict won’t destroy a community, but thinking it will just might. So will incessant pettiness.

Critiquing the priorities and power of a group that someone belongs to might just be a sign they care about that group, not a sign that they are evil incarnate or “infighting” or all that crap.

Critiquing power structures that benefit certain people above others is not the same thing as saying these are bad people who must go away and leave us alone and that we don’t appreciate them.

Having impure motives doesn’t make someone wrong or wholly evil or to be castigated for those motives while ignoring some of their real points, focusing entirely on speculating about people’s motives is a good way to avoid issues though.

At the same time, it’s not always our job to reassure you that you’re not evil and awful and stuff. At some point just decide that as axiomatic and move on to something constructive like figuring out what’s right and wrong and trying to do what’s right.

Disagreeing on how things should be done doesn’t mean people can’t work together or that the entire community is falling apart at the seams.

Sometimes a person’s disagreement comes out forcefully because they’ve been hiding it for a long time, knowing what kind of reaction they’d get if they said anything. Doesn’t make it less valid.

Anyone who thinks the web is or should be a comfortable safe place like their living room hasn’t been paying attention. (Edited to add: Anyone who thinks everyone even has a living room, or that everyone’s living room is comfortable and safe, hasn’t been paying attention either.)

She says some other interesting things that I think are of broader relevance to our own community. You may want to check out these quotes in context.

Then, let’s come back here and discuss: in what ways can we do better in handling and responding to controversies within the Deaf community? What lessons we can draw from Amanda’s post that would be relevant for ourselves?

[Want to submit your own essay for publication at Reunify Gally? It should be related in some way to reunifying or healing the Gallaudet community in the aftermath of the protests, or to diversity within the Deaf/deaf communities. If interested, review my Guidelines for Guest Bloggers and submit your essay to ashettle (at)]


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5 Responses to “Debate and Controversy in the Deaf Community”

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Excellent subject for discussion. Nothing better than making people think.


Gallaudet was the catalyst, not the center, the issues had been bubbling under the surface for many years, and it is very welcome to see that the different loss sectors are now having ‘some’ debates on these things. As they had not been before, it is logical the opening debates are heated and aflame, this will continue until a compromise is reached,a debate that wasn’t possible, until Fernandez was alleged to have made THAT remark.

I Know Americans have deep divisions with Fernandez, and locally, they know their own problems, but the point raised WAS valid, even if used in the wrong context, and I think it was an issue the ‘Deaf’ didn’t want raised, because they knew what was coming. HoH/’deaf’ have long felt side-lined in the scheme of things. I note via this bog:-

Quote: Please remember that I’m NOT seeking to start discussion on any of the following questions. I’m ONLY seeking to point out that these are common questions that MANY, and maybe all minority communities struggle with..

Which is the classic opt out really. You have already accepted these divisions and arguments exist, and to my mind it’s long overdue they were tackled. The days when a new buzz word or declaration went straight to mainstream without a murmur is over too, and the HoH/’deaf’ will not hesitate to point out things if they feel excluded now, so the basic reality is, if you are pushing the issues of deaf access, you HAVE to be now inclusive, and NOT, exclusive.

For years lip-service was given to HI/HoH/’deaf’ now it’s not on….. they are a growing voice, and as a majority will demand to be heard. I don’t think deaf culture can really afford to oppose them, and must, include them too.

Amanda’s comments are very relevant and may remain so a hundred years from now, long after all of us are gone. I first became amazed at her perspective and perceptiveness several months ago and meant to sit down and go over her considerable writings for ideas we can use.

Go to her website when you have time for serious study. You won’t regret it.


Thanks for taking your time to write a well-written post!

Amanda DOES raise many valid and interesting points. I intend to go visit her site whenever I have ample time to read (study).

Can you explain more about your first question? “where do we draw the boundaries on our community? Who “belongs” and who doesn’t “belong?” “

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